September 3, 2012


America's Edge : Take some favorable demographics, add a generous shot of American ingenuity, and stir in a very large quantity of natural gas, and you have the beginning of a bright new American future. (Martin Walker, Suymmer 2012, Wilson Quarterly)

At the end of the 1960s, with cities burning in race riots, campuses in an uproar, and a miserably unwinnable war grinding through the poisoned jungles of Indochina, an American fear of losing the titanic struggle with communism was perhaps understandable. Only the farsighted saw the importance of the contrast between American elections and the ruthless swagger of the Red Army's tanks crushing the Prague Spring of 1968. At the end of the 1970s, with American diplomats held hostage in Tehran, a Soviet puppet ruling Afghanistan, and glib talk of Soviet troops soon washing their feet in the Indian Ocean, Americans waiting in line for gasoline hardly felt like winners. Yet at the end of the 1980s, what a surprise! The Cold War was over and the good guys had won.

Naturally, there were many explanations for this, from President Ronald Reagan's resolve to Mikhail Gorbachev's decency; from American industrial prowess to Soviet inefficiency. The most cogent reason was that the United States back in the late 1940s had crafted a bipartisan grand strategy for the Cold War that proved to be both durable and successful. It forged a tripartite economic alliance of Europe, North America, and Japan, backed up by various regional treaty organizations such as NATO, and counted on scientists, inventors, business leaders, and a prosperous and educated work force to deliver both guns and butter for itself and its allies. State spending on defense and science would keep unemployment at bay while Social Security would ensure that the siren songs of communism had little to offer the increasingly comfortable workers of the West. And while the West waited for its wealth and technologies to attain overwhelming superiority, its troops, missiles, and nuclear deterrent would contain Soviet and Chinese hopes of expansion.

It worked. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Chinese leadership drew the appropriate lessons. (The Chinese view was that by starting with glasnost and political reform, and ducking the challenge of economic reform, Gorbachev had gotten the dynamics of change the wrong way round.) But by the end of 1991, the Democrat who would win the next year's New Hampshire primary (Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts) had a catchy new campaign slogan: "The Cold War is over--and Japan won." With the country in a mild recession and mega-rich Japanese investors buying up landmarks such as Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and California's Pebble Beach golf course, Tsongas's theme touched a national chord. But the Japanese economy has barely grown since, while America's gross domestic product has almost doubled.

There are, of course, serious reasons for concern about the state of the American economy, society, and body politic today. But remember, the United States is like the weather in Ireland; if you don't like it, just wait a few minutes and it's sure to shift. This is a country that has been defined by its openness to change and innovation, and the search for the latest and the new has transformed the country's productivity and potential. This openness, in effect, was America's secret weapon that won both World War II and the Cold War. We tend to forget that the Soviet Union fulfilled Nikita Khrushchev's pledge in 1961 to outproduce the United States in steel, coal, cement, and fertilizer within 20 years. But by 1981 the United States was pioneering a new kind of economy, based on plastics, silicon, and transistors, while the Soviet Union lumbered on building its mighty edifice of obsolescence.

This is the essence of America that the doom mongers tend to forget. 

...would we worry that we must be in decline because we produce ever more wealth with ever less work and have no foreign rivals, neither culturally nor militarily.  Let's call it the angst of winning.

Posted by at September 3, 2012 10:47 AM

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